The first chapter of The God Delusion is divided into two sections. The first section is entitled “Deserved Respect,” and talks about scientists like Einstein, Hawking, and others who use religious terminology to talk about the whoa-factor when it comes to just how cool the universe actually is. It is beyond dispute that lots of people (including scientists) get overwhelmed by the majesty of everything, and this regularly evokes religious-like sentiments, and that sometimes leads to religious-like forms of expression, even from the scientists. If traditional believers hear this language, they can too often jump to conclusions, and enlist the scientist in question on the side of the angels. Not so fast, says Dawkins.
There is not really a lot to talk about here — I quite agree that Einstein did not believe in a personal god. I think Dawkins does a decent job — the only substantive difference I would have with him is that he says that this is the only kind of religious expression that is deserving of respect. But of course that one difference makes all the difference.
“As I continue to clarify the distinction between supernatural religion on the one hand and Einsteinian religion on the other, bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional” (p. 15).
Well, I think lots of gods are delusional too, especially Thor, but we ought not to get distracted by these peripheral issues. We have other fish, as they say, to fry.
So the second part of this chapter begins his treatment of those expressions of religion that are not deserving of respect, and Dawkins certainly does not intend to render it. Quoting Mencken, Dawkins says that he will respect the other fellow’s religion, “but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart” (p. 27).
“The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language” (p. 19).
Dawkins thinks that “religions” of this latter type are way too pampered in our society, and that it has gotten to the point where no one is allowed to criticize something that is plainly nuts, provided that said something is done in the name of some religion or other. Ordinary activities and pursuits are not pampered in the same way. And he really has a point here, up to a point. Speaking of a court case where a religious group was allowed to use drugs for the sake of their “religion,” he says this:
“Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they ‘believe’ they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings” (p. 22).
Now I don’t want to go down a rabbit trail here, but it seems to me that a case arguing the need for hallucinogenic drugs in order to appreciate much that goes on in the contemporary art world could be quite a compelling one — but to pursue this point would take us too far afield. I want to get to the basic structural problem with how Dawkins is setting up the argument for the book.
He is quite right that many crazy things are done in the name of religion. He is also right that many crazy things are done in the name of the Christian religion. And so, in a deft move worthy of a young Napoleon in the field, he sets every form of supernatural religion on the one side (where they must all stand or fall together), and naturalism on the other. He sets this up as the choice before us, and he is now in a position to roll up his sleeves, spit on his hands, and get to work.
But wait a minute. Let’s do the same thing on another subject entirely. The content of the debate will change, but the structure of argumentation will be identical to that being used by Dawkins here. Instead of supernaturalism v. naturalism, let’s make it “medical treatments” v. “no medical treatments.”
The man who believes in “no medical treatments” can (if he remains healthy long enough) become quite a scourge for those bozos who believe in “medical treatments.” Every time the issue comes up, the skeptic can glibly refer to snake oil, naturopathy, eye of newt, chemotherapy, high fiber diets, chelation therapy, crystal healings, and antibiotics. These are all varied species of the genus “medical treatments.” And, you know, they are. And so the way this argument is constructed, the most sane medical doctor in the world has to answer for the joo joo bean cancer treatments, sold for a buck fifty at a nearby All Natural Health Emporium.
If the sane doctor tries to protest that he is against all the craziness in the “medical treatments” world, the skeptic has structured things in such a way that makes it most easy to disbelieve him.
“I refuse to believe you until you sever all ties with your fellow believers.”
“I am not a fellow believer. I don’t believe in the joo joo beans at all.”
“You say that, but you continue to adminster your own medications, do you not?”
“Well, yes . . .”
“Which also come in bottles? With printed labels?”
When Dawkins lights into radical Muslims going crazy over the Danish cartoons, I am right with him. Something really needs to be done about those people. When he talks about how Pope John Paul II made way too many people saints, my Scottish covenanter blood begins to rise, and I start hunting around for the psalter, claymore, and bagpipes. I begin muttering aye to myself.
But then I come back to earth. And I wonder, how is it that a false medical treatment can be used as an argument against all medical treatments? How does that work? How do forgeries prove that there is no original? How do counterfeiters show that there is no such thing as real money? Ah, I think to myself. There is some kind of funny business going on here.